This is the week we'll discover if all those people on both sides of the NHL lockout love hockey as much as they promise while holding the game for ransom.
Thursday may be yet another deadline imposed only by NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and the owners as the final day to save a full 82-game season but unlike the Sept. 15 one when the previous collective agreement expired, it is one grounded in reality. Unless the players and owners make serious progress toward an agreement this week, there simply would not be enough time to shoehorn 82 games into the calendar and still finish the Stanley Cup final by the end of June, a outrageously late date to be sure, and still allow the players some semblance of rest between games.
Since both sides acknowledge their latest offers show there is a deal to be made, that a 50-50 share of revenue is now the admitted goal, the solution is going to lie with the moderates among the owners and players. They have to start nudging, well, pushing really, the hard-liners among them to a deal.
At this point, the argument is about how fast the owners and players get to a 50-50 split and how much of the cost of going from the players' previous share of 57 per cent to 50 will come out of their pockets. So far, the owners insist it has to happen today and most of the cost will come from the players in the form of escrow on existing contracts and the shrinking of their portion in the future. The players want their contracts to be paid in full right now and to hit 50 per cent three years from now, according to two of the three offers they made last week, or go to 50-50 right away but with a provision to ensure all existing contracts are paid in full.
At this point, the only contact between the NHL Players' Association and the owners is by telephone. The old "We're-still-here-but-not-bargaining" call. Maybe they'll get together in New York this week and maybe not.
That is the frustrating part of the owners' latest lockout. They have managed to get a deal in sight but somehow have spent so little time actually negotiating in a sense it remains as far away as one did in those hopeless days in 2004-05 when weeks would go by with no communication of any kind between the owners and the union.
This is simply inconceivable in an industry that continues to spin record revenue despite a world economy that remains stuck in a recession that is the worst since the Great Depression of the 1930s. After seven years spent pulling its business out of the periphery of the professional sports industry, these people are acting like they don't care if the NHL drives away enough fans to once again make it an outlier league.
Most of the important negotiating sessions this time followed the same pattern – one side makes its case and the other walks out in a huff a few minutes later. Then the duelling media leaks and conferences start.
After the NHLPA handed the owners three choices in response to the offer they made a week ago, the owners marched out after 10 minutes. This after the players actually acknowledged a fast move to 50-50 was in the cards. And after the owners said they were willing to make some concessions on the idea of paying all existing contracts in full. They call this negotiating?
However, unless the moderates on both sides of the debate start speaking up, things will not change.